Every September in the piano studio, I like to match my students’ excitement about the return to lessons with small open ended projects that get our creative juices flowing and our fingers moving and our eyes reading again after the summer break. Often I send out an email in early August with suggestions for practicing in preparing specially for the first lesson of the new school year. Often small prizes are included when a student completes a short checklist of suggested activities. Sometimes these projects lead into major themes of study for the year, or they may just simply be used in the first month of practice. But the most essential component, is a varied list that creates an incentive for students to share with me, anything they may have explored on their own during the summer months, whether it is some composing or listening to You Tube videos of their favorite pop songs or mastering a piece that was started at the end of the previous school year in June. *
This year I borrowed a suggestion from friend and fellow colleague Lynn Wilby that involved creating a Bingo Card of piano activities. When a student completed all the activities in a row, either across or down or diagonally, they would receive a prize. Perfect, I thought for a beginning of the piano year activity. I devised projects for each square that would allow students an opportunity to re-master musical components that we covered during the past year. Music theory, music literacy, rhythm exercises, counting skills, playing from their memory list, learning a new piece of music on their own, opportunities to compose or improvise; these areas were all targeted and included. I also wanted to remind my students and parents of the online music theory and music making apps that I subscribe to for the benefit of the whole studio. And I wanted to make sure that all students remembered their user names and passwords so that they could check their own mp3 recording page that is stored on my website. Tasks such as these were all included in the bingo squares.
Students and families seemed excited to start after I emailed the cards to be printed out at home. At first I saw this as a one-week activity…just complete one row of projects for the first lesson and receive a prize from the prize box.
But I soon realized that all of the projects in the bingo squares were valuable but also, that students would need some guidance to complete some of them as intended. So, I changed the requirement to allow for an entire month of use, with students earning a colorful, biodegradable straw for each bingo row completed and then, working in cohorts with our local ice cream shop, a $5 gift certificate for a frappe, to go with their collection of straws, if they completed the whole card.
Cool yes? Exactly. I was as excited as the students to be approaching the piano in a new and unexpected way. But the biggest surprise and satisfaction came after using the bingo piano project for three weeks. Parents noticed it too. This project led to a “flipped classroom” approach to teaching! In a “flipped classroom” the teacher is no longer the prime disseminator of information. Students use videos and information at home to learn. Then they come to lessons for guidance to complete their projects. For example, I rarely suggested an order of bingo squares to complete. Students decided on their own, which project and which direction they wanted to go in. They came into lessons with pieces started, compositions sketched out and ideas for improvisations. They were tapping and clapping to learn the pieces they selected because they figured out that by practicing one piece, they could solve several squares of suggestions at one time. In order for me to put a “stamp” on a square that signaled completion, I might have to help them to lengthen their composition or encourage their attempts at improvisation or help them with counting aloud or completing their landmark note reading guides, but that is exactly the approach of the “flipped classroom.” I was their guide, not their lecturer.
I was shocked at which students chose to dive right into creating or drawing pictures that suggested the expression of a piece or making up lyrics to a classical piece where there were none. I had a chance to see which students are also natural artists, poets; inventive with sound and who was able to use their music skills to learn independently…which is our actual goal…unquestionably.
I found myself starting each lesson with something that I wanted to set up…like “this is the week we start our scale practice again”. But then I always specifically turned the rest of the lesson over to them…for the students to show me what they wanted help with, in what order they wanted to work on their mini-projects and where they saw themselves working the following week. It was exciting. Remarkable. Unforeseen advantages with keen interest all around. In the end, we are keeping up the project until everyone earns a special New England style frappe, before the chill of winter settles in.
*An alternative bingo card was created for young and new students.